What is Really Behind the “Customer-Involvement” Movement?

Self-Service KioskAs a follow-up to our last post that suggested how some retailers are rethinking customer self-service options, it seems appropriate to take a look at the self-service concept in greater detail.?? In some ways, self-service marketing is born out of the “customer is most important” mantra that many companies have adopted.

Over the last 20 years marketers have embraced this notion of a customer-centered business and have done so by investing heavily in specialized technologies, including customer relationship management (CRM) systems, advanced call centers and customer self-service equipment. In addition, to let the world know they are creating a business environment that empowers its customers, companies have aggressively praise their efforts through corporate press releases, website postings, white papers, social media comments, statements in annual reports and direct communication with customers.

By introducing new technologies and letting customers (and the world) know about it, companies see the potential of building a satisfied and highly loyal customer base. Yet, when the big picture is examined customers may discover that while a firm is patting itself on the back for its customer service gains they may, in fact, be whittling away at services that long-time customers have come to expect.

A case in point is the evolution of “customer involvement” in a marketer’s business. We see this when customers handle certain tasks that were typically offered as part of regular business practice.? Here the retailing industry is certainly the leader.? It may have started when brick-and-mortar grocery stores persuaded customers to get involved in placing their own products in shopping bags and has now extended to having customers return their shopping carts to specific locations and performing their own checkout at retail scanners.? But the grocery industry is not the only place we see this.? A customer handling what was previously a business-provided task is now commonplace at gas stations (e.g., pumping gas), office supply stores (e.g., copying), and, of course, banks (e.g., cash machines).

Emergence of Self-Service Kiosks
Moving customers to get involved has spawned many marketing opportunities with self-service kiosks being at the top.? Kiosks have been around for many years in various forms but only within the last 10 to 15 years has a push been made to incorporate kiosks as an important component for the “customer involvement” movement.? Some of the most well-known examples include kiosks for printing photos, airline ticketing, fast food ordering, job application submission and many more.

Additionally, assisted-selling kiosks are emerging to support retail sales personnel.? Customers use the information obtained from the kiosk, which may include video tutorials, to receive answers to commonly asked questions before talking with a salesperson.

For the most part, self-service kiosks offer customers real advantages in terms of time savings.? For instance, instead of waiting days for a sign to be laminated a busy real estate agent can do it herself in a few minutes.? Or the corporate executive, whose flight has arrived late, can avoid rental car lines and grab car keys by entering a membership card in a vending machine.? And, of course, with the exception of a few U.S. states, nearly anyone can treat a gas station like a NASCAR pit stop.

Companies also see big advantages.? Having customers perform services allows companies to lower labor costs.? It may also allow retailers to create a more open retail space as kiosks replace counter space.? Also, the idea that customers want self-service suggests companies are giving people what they want, thereby increasing customer satisfaction.

The Downside of the Self-Service Movement
So on the surface everything seems golden when companies relinquish control of certain services.? Customers gain some level of convenience, including time savings, while companies experience potentially significant cost savings and increase customer satisfaction.? But, whether these trade-offs are equitable is not entirely clear since a bigger question may be whether empowering customers with new do-it-yourself tasks is simply masking the real change that is taking place.? Are companies shifting their inefficient operations to the customer because they cannot figure out how to do it right?? And worse yet, once the customer learns how to perform the task, will companies see a new revenue opportunity by charging customers to do the very service the company doesn?t want to perform?

If this seems farfetched, then consider what has happened with the ubiquitous ATM.? In the 1980s banks pleaded with customers to move basic transactions to the ATM rather than enter the bank to use teller services.? They said having customers use the ATM would create a more flexible banking environment since customers would be able to access funds at anytime.? Yet, in reality, one of the big reasons for the move to the ATM was to allow banks to reduce service personnel and keep branch hours to customary banking hours.? So everyone seemed to make out.? But soon banks found shifting customer behavior offered an opportunity to make money by charging customers a fee to use the ATM.? So not only did customers save banks money but now they provided a way for banks to make even more.

It remains to be seen whether other businesses will follow the lead of banks and begin to charge customers for self-service options.? However, it does seem that over time customers become desensitized to the importance of services once offered by companies.? As a new generation experiences a “customer involvement” service for the first time, it is likely the majority of customers will have forgotten or will never have known who provided the service in the first place.? Once this occurs, charging to allow customers to be involved in services will most likely not result in significant customer complaints.

Image by Chase N.